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Stella McCusker: Like Dame Judi Dench I plan never to retire and there will be no nursing homes for me... I still think I'm 16!

One of our most accomplished actresses, Stella McCusker, is delighting audiences in Belfast in a comedy about ageing disgracefully. The star talks to Stephanie Bell about her 50-year career, working with friend Liam Neeson and what she thinks of the recent controversy he was caught up in

Stella McCusker
Stella McCusker

As acting royalty in Northern Ireland it is not surprising that Stella McCusker's current theatre role was actually written with her in mind.

A vibrant, sharp-witted veteran of the stage and screen, Stella plays 80-year-old Olivia who suffers from "age rage" and is growing old disgracefully in the world premiere of the comedy I Shall Wear Purple, currently running at Belfast's Grand Opera House.

Rosemary Jenkinson's new play about painting the town red will resonate with many - not least its leading lady - as it takes a hilarious look at senior years with the clear message that age is just a number, not an identity.

For Stella, who opens our interview with the words "I never discuss my age or retirement", it is definitely a theme she can relate to. And after a superb opening night on Tuesday she reveals that Rosemary had her in mind when she penned the play.

"The audience seemed to really enjoy it and that is very gratifying," she says. "My character in the play is in a nursing home but doesn't want to be there and she does have lots of freedom but she has to get permission to go out.

"She is a very lively character and is 80-years-old, but says she is celebrating the 10th anniversary of her 70th birthday.

"I'm that character. Rosemary told me she wrote it with me in mind. She says she heard my voice as she was writing it. It is certainly very nice and of course I am very flattered and thrilled about it.

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"Age and retirement are not spoken about in my home. Just like Dame Judi Dench I plan never to retire and there will be no nursing homes for me."

Warming to her theme, Stella goes on to exclaim: "I still think I am 16! I come from a family of long livers and very hard workers and I do work terribly hard. I'm very dedicated and I think that is what has kept me going so long."

The role demands a lot of Stella and her co-actor Patrick McBrearty, who plays Thomas. There are only the two of them in the cast for the duration of the 70-minute play.

Stella McCusker
Stella McCusker

Set in Malinderry Care Home, it tells the story of Olivia who is fighting to leave, while Thomas, who runs art therapy classes, is fighting to stay when his funding is cut.

When the play finishes its run in the Opera House tomorrow, it is due to go on a tour of theatres across Northern Ireland.

Stella says: "There are 10 scenes in it, each with a week or two weeks between them, and we have no time to get in and out of costume as we only have 15 seconds between scenes - which is just enough time to throw a scarf over me. It is hard work for us but Rosemary is very nice and everyone is very kind and helpful."

Exhilarated to be on stage and doing what she loves most, Stella has enjoyed a stellar career in acting spanning 50 years.

Not only does she refuse to retire but even slowing down is not a consideration as she insists: "I want to accelerate, not slow down, and I would never even dream of telling management I wasn't feeling well. I would keep going even if my foot was about to fall off."

Her work ethic has seen her enjoy a prolific career, appearing in plays, television and films all over the world. Just last year she completed a seven-month stint in London's West End in The Ferryman, which won widespread critical acclaim when it opened at the Royal Court and was the fastest selling show in the theatre's history.

Liam Neeson
Liam Neeson

Before that she toured Europe with The Muse and then was cast in a film called Euthanasia by a Munich company which again involved her travelling across the continent.

She is perhaps best known for the 2009 film Five Minutes of Heaven and Nineties movie You, Me and Marley which revolved around a gang of Protestant and Catholic youths in which she played Mrs Hagan. She has also appeared in the TV series Lovejoy and more recently on Game of Thrones.

Stella reveals she has also just filmed a movie in Belfast with long-time friend Liam Neeson (right) which is due for release later this year. Liam and Stella go way back to when he first trod the boards as a young man in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast - and they have remained friends ever since.

Talking about the movie, she says: "I did get a small part in Normal People, which is a love story written by Owen McCafferty and starring Liam. It is about a cancer diagnosis and our characters meet in hospital.

"We filmed at Whiteabbey Hospital and at the Whitehead steam train and while we were standing at the railway tracks we enjoyed reminiscing. He is a wonderful person."

Stella is very dismissive of the recent racism storm the Hollywood star found himself caught up in.

Neeson sparked outrage when he admitted he once wanted to kill a black man. He said he walked the streets with a weapon for a week years ago, hoping to take out his anger after someone close to him was raped by a black man.

He was speaking to promote his new film, Cold Pursuit, a thriller about a man who seeks retribution after his son is murdered.

Stella says she is happy that the furore appears to have died down, dismissing it as "ridiculous, nothing more than a storm in a teacup".

Stella McCusker in the comedy I Shall Wear Purple at Belfast’s Grand Opera House
Stella McCusker in the comedy I Shall Wear Purple at Belfast’s Grand Opera House

Stella began her own career in her 20s but got a taste for acting while still a schoolgirl when she joined an operatic society in Lurgan.

Acting as a profession was even more precarious when she started out and she is thrilled to have witnessed the birth of Northern Ireland's booming new film industry in recent years.

Game of Thrones proved a game changer for the industry here and Stella is grateful she got to play a part in the international blockbuster, albeit (as she points out) a small one.

"When I was younger there weren't the same opportunities and it is wonderful to see what is happening here now," she says.

"I was so thankful to be part of Game of Thrones. It was not a huge part although I wish it had been.

"The amount of money they spent just on my small part was amazing, there was no expense spared.

"My character ends up flailed and cut up and hung up and for that I was flown to London to get a mould of my body made which cost a lot of money but looked so realistic, although it was a bit claustrophobic getting it done."

How it came across on screen is something she will never know because, despite the many parts she has played for TV and film, she reveals she has never watched anything she appears in.

And it is much to her obvious discomfort that she is set to break that golden rule soon after being persuaded by writer Michael Daly to attend a special showing of his film, Forgive Me Not, in Queen's Film Theatre.

She says: "I don't watch the stuff I do. I wouldn't dream of it and I am very reluctantly going to the premiere in Queen's Film Theatre of Forgive Me Not which Michael Daly has begged me to go to. I promised I would but I don't know how I will feel as watching myself on screen is not a thing I do. I just don't. I have never watched myself apart from maybe looking at show reels.

"Film is, of course, very different from theatre and I'm sure if I did watch myself there would be lots of stuff I would think I could have done better but it is just something I don't do."

Stella was brought up in Aghagallon, outside Lurgan, with one sister and three brothers, one of whom has passed away. She says her family is very close and she is a regular visitor.

She has lived for many years in Belfast with her partner James Cahill, an artist whom she describes as "my great friend".

They have been together for 28 years.

"James is my right-hand man, I couldn't do without him," she says.

"He is an amazing guy and is my great friend as well as being my partner.

"I am lucky to be close to my family as well and I think they are proud of me. They do come to see my stuff most of the time.

"I have a lot of nephews and nieces who are all over the world and I think that is brilliant."

Stella has been grateful for the opportunities that have come her way and says she is happiest when she is busy with work.

Outside of her work she says she enjoys "a normal life" with no particular hobbies other than going to the theatre.

Her need to keep busy will be tested this year as she finds herself in the unusual position of having an open diary after I Shall Wear Purple completes its province-wide tour on March 16.

"I have absolutely nothing coming up this year which is the first time in about four years that I've been in that position.

"I have been approached about some work in early 2020 but nothing for this year, although that can change very quickly. Or maybe it is one of those times when it is just going to be quiet for me."

She adds: "I don't cope terribly well with having nothing to do.

"When I started out there wasn't as many roles for women and all women go through that and I think parts dwindle off as you get to a certain age.

"I guess I've been very lucky so far and I feel very blessed to have done what I have done"

I Shall Wear Purple is at Belfast's Grand Opera House until tomorrow, and then has a six-show tour across Northern Ireland. For more information visit C21theatrecompany.com

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